Three fine British actors, one grade-A U.S. ham, and writer-director Steve Zaillian bring Robert Penn Warren's great American novel of political corruption and wrecked idealism to the screen in an adaptation that's more faithful than, if ultimately inferior to, Robert Rossen's 1949 Academy Award winner. Set in the post-WWII South and loosely based on the colorful career of real-life Louisiana governor Huey Long, the film charts the rapid rise and precipitous fall of the essentially good but corruptible Willie Stark (Sean Penn), who took on the moneyed Old Guard that kept "hicks" like Stark down in the mud while enriching themselves through cronyism, corruption and graft. A self-educated pig-farmer-turned-county-treasurer, Stark gets his big break when a fire escape collapses on a new local school, a school Stark had warned was being built with substandard materials by a firm closely connected to Louisiana politicos. The tragedy reminds people of the honest man who tried to blow the whistle on the scam, and when the political machine in Baton Rouge goes looking for a popular rube to split the "hick" vote and ensure the incumbent governor's reelection, gubernatorial aides Tiny Duffy (James Gandolfini) and Sadie Burke (Patricia Clarkson) call on Willie Stark. When Stark figures out he's being used, he delivers a fiery harangue against the powers-that-be, a rant whose righteous anger and populist rhetoric proves immediately popular with the "hicks" and turns Willie Stark into a political force. Forged in the crucible of political corruption, newly elected Governor Stark keeps his enemies close he even hires Sadie and Tiny as aides. He also enlists the help of former Chronicle journalist Jack Burden (Jude Law), not because he wrote a series of favorable profiles about the Stark campaign, but because Jack represents the other Louisiana where Stark has yet to gain a foothold: the conservative, affluent world of Burden's Landing, where Jack grew up with his best friends Anne and Adam Stanton (Kate Winslet, Mark Ruffolo), children of the former governor, and their powerful uncle, Judge Irwin (Anthony Hopkins), Jack's beloved godfather. Jack knows he's being used, but he believes in Stark's promise to provide poor Louisianans with roads, schools and hospitals, and when rumors of strong-arm tactics and graft reach his ears, Jack uses these noble ends to help justify Stark's questionable means. But when Stark orders Jack to dig deep into the seemingly incorruptible Judge Irwin's past for an exploitable bit of scandal that will force him to withdraw his support for Stark's impeachment, Jack finds himself torn between the blind innocence of his past and the reality of Louisiana's future. Fitting Warren's sprawling 700-page novel into a two-hour movie is a tall order Rossen simply snipped out most of it and the scars do show. We never see enough of the small compromises Willie Stark makes on the way up to fully grasp the tragedy of his fall. Some will undoubtedly find Penn's ham-boned, spittle-lashing performance a bit much, but it's a pretty close to Warren's original conception. Besides, few other actors could hope to compete with James Horner's overbearing, "Feel this now!" score.
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- Released: 2006
- Rating: PG-13
- Review: Three fine British actors, one grade-A U.S. ham, and writer-director Steve Zaillian bring Robert Penn Warren's great American novel of political corruption and wrecked idealism to the screen in an adaptation that's more faithful than, if ultimately inferio… (more)
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